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Burden

There is comfort in being burdened by a friend.

“You don’t have to come,” she mumbled through the phone. I heard a sniff, a cough, and then an apology of some sort. “I’m fine, really.” Hardly convincing, I thought, as I grabbed keys and locked the door behind me, mentally unprepared for the task ahead. Why me? I thought. Why now?

“I’ll be right there,” I replied, ignoring her rejection. “Sit tight.” Just as I was about to hang up, she spoke once again, a hint of frustration apparent in each word.

“You really don’t have to come.” I sighed. I was afraid I would lose her if I kept on arguing, so I decided to change the subject. Just to keep her busy for the five blocks between her apartment and my house. That was key—she needed a distraction, only until I was right beside her. I swallowed nervously as I dodged incoming traffic and briskly made my way across the street.

I must have looked ridiculous—it was midnight, below freezing, and here was a six-foot-four male in bright blue plaid pajamas and matching flip flops on the phone. I belatedly realized that I should have at least grabbed a coat or worn some real shoes, but those concerns became secondary to the fear that grew with every step. I needed the distraction just as much as she did.

“Well, what are you doing now?” I asked dumbly, hoping she wouldn’t see through the small talk. I didn’t bother waiting for the light, to the dismay of late night drivers. I was a specter in the night, a glowing apparition in the darkness—it was an amusing observation, but one I had no room to appreciate. I still had three blocks to go. It was a simple, straight path—one I had to walk every day just to catch the train to work or to buy groceries or to meet her for lunch. But now it winded ahead of me, twirled into complicated shapes as convoluted as the chaos reverberating through my head. It rumbled down my spine and then through my arms and legs. Halfway down the block, I stopped moving, suddenly paralyzed with fear. Heavy with doubt.

Her voice cut through the clutter, but I belatedly registered what it had said. “You’re still coming, aren’t you?”

“I’m just talking to you,” I said, but it barely came out as more than a whisper. I tried to clear my throat, I tried to cough out whatever had taken over me, but I only sounded frailer, weaker, when I spoke again. “It’s okay if we just talk, now, right?”

I managed to take a step. Then another. Barely halfway there—I wanted to turn around. I didn’t need to be there, I wasn’t her babysitter. I wasn’t anything. It was more of a bitter realization than a part of my reasoning. But I didn’t want to leave her on her own, with so much power, so misguided. I knew what it could do—I tried not to think about it, but vague images blipped in and out of my head and those were enough.

She’d been avoiding me—avoiding people—for the last few days. She’d been ignoring phone calls and messages, she’d only greet people at the door and make sure they were gone within a minute. People asked me what was up, what had happened, and I’d look at them bewildered and reply, “How am I supposed to know?”

What were we?—that’s a complicated question. She never really told me, or at least I never really believed her, and that never ends well. That’s all it came down to, and when it was as simple as that it sounded like the most stupid thing, like the easiest thing we could have avoided. She just had to be honest and I just had to believe her. Instead I thought she couldn’t care less and figured I didn’t have to either.

But I made the call that night—it was only a gesture, so that I could tell the next person who asked I tried. To my frustration, though, she picked up on the second ring. And the first thing I thought was “Why are you playing with me like this?”

“I swear, I fucking hate this,” she almost shouted—the first thing she said. I had no idea what “this” was, or why she hated it, or why it sounded like she’d been crying.

“What?” She took that as an invitation to explain everything, down to the most useless details, and concluded with the very definitive declaration, “I want to die.”

Still standing in the middle of the street I wondered if I wanted to be with her. Mixed in with the fear of her fulfilling her wishes were my doubts, my frustrations—pure resentment that threatened to burst through the receiver for her to witness in its full form. But I felt responsible, I felt needed, I felt like I had to be there, a faint light to get her through the bleak night.

“I’m not doing anything right now,” she said tersely. “It’s late. I want to sleep.” I hated that—the sideways way of answering everything. If you’re not gonna talk, hang up. If you’re gonna talk, quit being a bitch. I swallowed my agitation and took a few more steps down the block. The lead feeling in my legs began to wear away.

“Watch a movie,” I suggested amicably. A feeling of urgency returned and I briskly made my way across the next block. “Come on, Saturday night and you’re just gonna sleep?” She laughed. It was an almost frightening laugh, as it carried with it traces of grief and almost sounded like a shriek. I couldn’t tell if it was a good sign.

“I’m not a teenager anymore,” she said. “If I don’t get my sleep, I’m not going to get up.” I offered a pathetic laugh—she saw through it easily.

“Look, I’m…” she hesitated. “I’m not going to kill myself. I promise. I swear, even. I don’t know what came over me when I said I wanted to die.” I found myself a block away from her building—four floors up I could make out the light of her apartment through the curtains. I sighed, shook my head and finished the final stretch.

“I’m just making sure,” I said. Whether or not she wanted it, I was going to be there. Whether or not I wanted it, I had to be there for her. It was frustrating—infuriating, even—that it took so much just to make that clear. I wanted to be her light more than anything else—I couldn’t have anyone else take that from me. Likewise, she was my darkness, my burden, my responsibility, the very one who gave me a purpose.

I approached the apartment, pushed through the double doors, and buzzed her apartment number 4C.

“You have a visitor,” I spoke into the receiver.

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